Helayna Pera is the unit biologist for Sacramento and Sutter counties. Based at Region 2 Headquarters in Rancho Cordova, she manages all kinds of issues related to game and state-managed properties in these counties, including management of unstaffed lands, right of entry permits, easements, nuisance wildlife concerns and special hunts. Since she’s located at the region office, she also often interacts with members of the public who stop by with general questions about hunting or need bear teeth pulled or deer tags validated.
Originally hired as a wildlife biologist at Grizzly Island Wildlife Area, Helayna will mark her tenth year with the department this fall. Her husband, Bob Pera, is a wildlife officer and former K-9 handler whose interest in working dogs has influenced Helayna over the years. She has recently received approval for a CDFW pilot program to train a K-9 to assist CDFW biologists (rather than law enforcement officers) with field work.
What got you interested in working with wildlife?
Believe it or not….wolves. Growing up I had two as “pets.” I thought I wanted to be a wolf biologist. After college and the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone I realized that I didn’t want to touch that political drama with a 10-foot catch pole!
Who or what brought you to CDFW? What inspires you to stay?
After graduating from Humboldt I went to work for the US Forest Service as a wildlife biologist. USFS does great work but it is very heavily lands-based. Each forest is different and the forest I was working on did not do a lot of surveying. I found myself in the office a lot. To make it worse, I was dealing with vegetation and GIS and not wildlife. I didn’t feel like I was making a positive change in conservation. I studied for the CDFW wildlife exam, passed the test, interviewed for the Grizzly Island Wildlife Biologist position and got it. The people I work with are a huge inspiration. I do not plan on leaving until retirement.
What is the most rewarding project that you’ve worked on for CDFW?
My current project has to be by far the best! I am heading up a conservation canine pilot program. Our department has law enforcement based canines that are used for poaching and violation cases. However, my pilot is all science based. Scat dogs have been used for decades but it has been primarily a private business. A researcher may contract out for a dog team to come in to detect and collect a particular species scat. Then the researcher can pull DNA off the scat to answer a magnitude of questions. Our department should not have to contract out for this when we can do it in-house. My current dog, Chico, has just started training to track darted deer and to detect Townsend’s Big Eared Bat guano and Great Grey Owl pellets.
If you had free reign and unlimited funding, what scientific project would you most like to do?
If I had unlimited funding I would push the conservation canine pilot to the max. It would be run like our current law enforcement K-9 program. There would be multiple biologist/canine teams across the state trained on various species. These dogs can be trained on more than 25 scents. Any research our department does that could use a conservation canine, we would have a team to do the work. I would expand the program for more than detection dogs. We would look into Karelian Bear Dogs for aversive conditioning of bears in problem areas. I would LOVE to run a program like this!
What is the best thing about being a wildlife scientist?
Every once in a while…you have an entire day with no cell phone service. Believe it or not, there are places with no signal. It is just you, maybe another biologist, the trees, birds, squirrels and all the other critters you do not know are around but are watching you!
Any advice for people considering careers in science or natural resources?
Humboldt State University! All joking aside -- pick a school that has a good science program. Volunteer with as many people as you can. The wildlife arena is large but small at the same time. Eventually you will apply for a job and the person reviewing your application will know one of your references. Don’t ever think you are above the work being assigned. No one is entitled. While working at Grizzly Island as a biologist, I had to take the porta potty driver to each unit because he was new. It is all in a day’s work.
Over the course of your career, was there a discovery or an incident that surprised you?
I never thought in my wildest dreams my regional manager would approve a pilot conservation canine program. I am surprised by the wealth of support I have received. I am also surprised at how close the CDFW family is for a government agency. That’s another reason why I am not going anywhere!
Is there a preconception about scientists you would like to dispel?
There was a picture going around for a while on the internet about what different people thought a wildlife biologist does. Most of the public thinks we are wardens and our parents think we cuddle with otters. I don’t want to carry a gun all the time and an otter will bite your face off if you try to cuddle with them! There are a lot of unhappy people with wildlife nuisance problems and a lot of public inquiries. I do sit at my desk a lot more then I want to. I would like to think I am in the field all the time capturing elk but it does not happen as often as I would like.
The world of science and managing natural resources can be mysterious to people outside this field. What is it about the work you do that you’d most like us to know that will make it less so?
We can learn a lot from DNA. An analyzed scat sample can tell me the species, sex, reproductive status, health and even an individual ID. A dog trained to find this scat can unlock many questions for wildlife conservation. Wildlife management is a very broad and political topic due to animal rights. The important thing to remember is conservation is wise use and preservation is no use. Humans will always be in the equation.
What is your typical work day like?
A lot more boring than you would think. There are always emails and numerous phone calls about people having problems with wildlife. I might have a falconry exam to administer or questions regarding one of our wildlife areas. Hunting season comes with deer validation and pulling bear teeth. There are local fish and game commission meetings, special hunt paperwork and maybe the occasional walk-in complaint to address. But, every once in a while -- like tomorrow -- I will have no cell phone service!
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spare time! What is that? I have a 3 year old daughter and a high-drive dog. Spare time at our house is limited. However, we live on 5 acres and have some chickens, a lamb or two and a goat. We love to camp and fish and we always put in for the deer draw. I am also a huge Disney fan so if I can convince the hubby, we try to go to Disneyland once a year if we can afford it!
Any closing thoughts?
You spend most of your time either working or sleeping so make sure you love your job and own a great mattress!